In 1991, two young indigenous actresses sat down with a whitefella playwright. They wanted a play from him and they had three demands. First, it had to be about three women. Second, those women had to be complex, strong characters. Third, the play would not explicitly reference their aboriginality. Not even once.
The actresses were Rhoda Roberts and Lydia Miller, the playwright Louis Nowra, and the play they wove together over a long series of weekly dinner dates was Radiance, the story of three estranged half-sisters who come together in Far North Queensland for their mother’s funeral.
Programmed into Belvoir’s 1993 season and directed by Rosalbe Clemente, Radiance was a box-office hit. Five years later, the big-screen adaptation made a star of Deborah Mailman, who for her performance became the first indigenous woman to win an AFI Award. Now, 22 years after its debut, Radiance is getting a second life at Belvoir, where it is being hailed as “an exuberant black sabbath for three great indigenous dames”. But it was never meant to be, Roberts says. Radiance is an “accidental” Aboriginal classic. Rachael Maza and Deborah Mailman in the film Radiance
“We just wanted to show we could act,” Roberts says. “At that time, we were getting a lot of acting work but it was all about the missions or it was showing Aboriginal women as victims, or lazy or drunks. We wanted better roles than that. We wanted to perform in a psychological drama that was universal and not just about being black.” Advertisement
The original intention was to create an Australian play any three women could perform, regardless of race. “We had this dream that three Lebanese girls could play these roles. Or three Chinese girls,” Roberts says. “They could bring their own cultures to the roles. But it didn’t pan out like that. By the time the film came out [in 1998], they changed the dialogue so it was all about being Aboriginal. We never wanted the words “black” or “Aboriginal” in the script. It was just about strong women, not about aboriginality. That was what we wanted. But there have been several other productions since then and they’ve all had three Aboriginal actresses in them, and now we have another one at Belvoir, which is terrific, but it wasn’t our original intention.”
As young actors, Roberts and Miller were part of a group of artists who established the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust (ANTT) in 1988. They had the backing of indigenous elders in the theatre, including playwrights Jack Davis and Kevin Gilbert, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly known as Kath Walker) and actor and playwright Bob Maza. They also had guidance from actress Justine Saunders, who had a groundbreaking television career (Number 96, Prisoner and the award-winning miniseries Women of the Sun) and film credits including The Fringe Dwellers and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.
“Justine said about her acting work, ‘I’ve been raped, prostituted and killed but I’d love a role where people can see I have emotion’. That was a driving force for us,” Roberts says. “We wanted roles with a deep array of emotion we could sink our teeth into. It was bold to approach a playwright like Louis Nowra. But we had to be bold. We came from an era where if you didn’t generate work, it wasn’t going to happen. We commissioned him with our own money.”
Roberts says they chose Nowra because he was “flavour of the month” at the time. “We knew Louis had plays on all over the country and we wanted a mainstream box-office hit. We wanted it to be noticed.”
Roberts had performed in a number of ANTT productions at Belvoir and the Victorian Arts Centre prior to Radiance being written. Miller’s reputation as a stage actress was already firmly established, having performed in Nowra’s adaptation of Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia (for Belvoir, 1988) and playing opposite Geoffrey Rush in Neil Armfield’s production of The Diary of a Madman in 1989, which also toured to Russia in 1991. Roberts and Miller wanted established indigenous stage actresses Kylie Belling or Jedda Cole (best known for Flying Doctors) for the third sister. Neither was available.
“Then we saw this young girl straight out of WAAPA [Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts] who hadn’t done any professional theatre,” Roberts recalls. “That was Rachael Maza. We took a chance on her and she fitted right in.”
Roberts played the freewheeling youngest sister Nona. Miller played the elder sister Cressy, a successful opera singer who now calls London home. Maza played middle sister Mae, a nurse who cared for their sick mother for the two years before her death. All three sisters had very different relationships with their mother (and each other) and during the course of the play they uncover a trail of secrets and lies.
The play opened at Belvoir in September 1993 to mixed reviews. One critic dismissed Radiance as melodrama. Another described Act I as “slack” and “slapdash” before conceding the second act contained some “pretty magical theatre”.
The play had a much greater impact on other female actors than on theatre critics, Roberts says. “I remember there were community theatres out west – groups of Vietnamese actors and other Asian actors – asking us, how did you do this? We want to do this. It was a revelation for them to see that you could create play that suited you rather than being told what to do.”
In the rehearsal room at Belvoir in Surry Hills, three of the country’s leading indigenous actors are rehearsing Radiance: Leah Purcell (who also directs) plays elder sister Cressy, Shari Sebbens plays Mae and Miranda Tapsell plays Nona. They have shifted the drama from 1993 into the present day but the story is still set in a Queenslander on stilts overlooking an out-of-the-way beach.
“We’ve only changed a few lines that dated it. But it’s basically the same play about a dysfunctional family with three gutsy women,” Purcell says. “There is a lot of love for this play. But we don’t want to just repeat history. I didn’t see the play first time around and I haven’t looked at the film. We want to make this production our own.”
Sebbens, who has recently spoken out against racism in the theatre and the lack of non-indigenous roles for Aboriginal actors, says she is thrilled to be performing in a play where her aboriginality isn’t the be-all. “This is a story about a family’s dirty secrets,” she says. “Everyone can relate to that. It feels great to be up on stage without having to explain aboriginality or validating why we’re here. We’re just three ballsy women on stage.”
Purcell says Roberts and Miller opened the door for actors of her generation to collaborate with non-indigenous playwrights and directors. Ningali Lawford collaborated with Robyn Archer and Angela Chaplin on her solo show Ningali in 1994. Two years later, Roberts commissioned Purcell to co-write Box the Pony with Scott Rankin, which debuted at the Opera House in 1997 before touring Australia and playing in London and Edinburgh.
“Those theatre-makers allowed us to tell our stories,” Purcell says. “But now we don’t need white writers and directors to help us get a show on any more. We have our own writers like Jada Alberts and Nakkiah Lui. I’m also in a position where other people come to me to write for them. I’ve written a feature film for myself – I wrote the bastard and I got the funding. We can do this now. We have to do this to be part of the industry and prosper. But we couldn’t have done it without women like Rhoda and Lydia coming before us.”
All three women in the original Radiance cast went on to leadership roles in the arts. Roberts is now the head of indigenous programming at the Sydney Opera House. Miller works at the Australia Council for the Arts. Maza is the artistic director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company.
“Lydia is now working in administration to make sure there is funding for Aboriginal arts but I still think she is one of the greatest actors we ever had,” Roberts says. “She was our Cate Blanchett. Now she’s our Robyn Nevin. Her mind is extraordinary and she has so much craft. I would love to see her return to the stage one day.”
In the meantime, Roberts says young indigenous actors are experiencing something of a renaissance. “There is a lot of work around now for young actors,” she says. “And there is great talent coming through. Shari has such craft, dignity and the community knowledge. Little Miranda Tapsell has the energy of Nona and sometimes she reminds me of me. Rarriwuy Hick and Dubs Yunipingu are the next ones coming through. There is a whole world out there for them. We just need to nurture our writers to keep writing more and more diverse stories.”